Breaking up is expensive to do: Every time a family divorced, it cost the taxpayer pounds 10,500

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TONY BLAIR set out his stall on single parenthood on Sunday on the Walden programme, saying that he believed it was wrong for women to choose to have children if they were not part of a stable relationship.

'If someone is making the choice to bring up a child as a single parent,' he said, 'I'm very surprised at that. The vast majority of single parents do not choose to be single parents . . . If they do, I personally don't agree with them in doing that.'

Rather than stigmatising single parents, however, he said he would want them to be able to bring up their children and at the same time be able to earn a decent living. But he believed that what was best for children was to be 'brought up in a normal, stable family'.

It was an extremely important statement of belief coming so soon after his election to the leadership of the Labour Party, and it ought to stimulate a thorough examination of the costs that the growth of single parenthood imposes on our society.

Although Mr Blair was talking essentially in moral terms, there are powerful social and economic arguments for seeking to encourage the traditional family structure.

The costs of single parenthood and family disruption are respectively social and economic, although, as social problems have economic consequences, they do overlap. But while the social effects have understandably been extensively researched, the economic consequences seem hardly to have been studied.

The work on the social consequences as far as children are concerned was well summarised earlier this year in a paper published by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation. The study, by Louie Burghes of the Family Policy Unit, showed that the adverse impact on children was much more complicated than the 'single parent bad, two parents good' rule of thumb which is too often assumed. It looked at a series of outcomes for children from different family situations - educational achievement, physical development, social status, income and so on - then tried to identify the impact of these changes on the family.

The difference between, for example, the children of widowed lone parents and those of an intact two-parent family was not very great. But if a family was disrupted by separation or divorce, the adverse impact was much greater. In other words, from the point of view of the children, it is better to have a parent die than get a divorce.

Another conclusion was that children who are born 'illegitimate' but remain living with their mothers may fare better than those who subsequently live with both parents. A slightly less surprising conclusion was that where a family was heading towards separation or divorce, children seemed to suffer even before the split took place. Bad marriages are bad for children, too.

So while this evidence, taken as a whole, would generally support the idea that children do better in conventional two-parent families than in other types of family, the evidence is not clear-cut. Where the evidence, in so far as there is any evidence, is completely clear is on the economic side.

We all tend to think of families as social units, but they are also economic units, and the two-parent family is a wonderfully efficient way of bringing up children. The most thorough study that seems to have been carried out on the economic issues, and in particular the cost to the public purse, was done four years ago by the Compass Partnership for Relate.

The paper estimated that, in 1987, every time a family separated or divorced, it cost the taxpayer pounds 10,500. In other words, pounds 10,500 had to be taken from families which did not break up, or from single people, or from the retired, and given to the people of this particular family just because they had chosen not to carry on with their relationship.

Now Relate (the former Marriage Guidance Council) would argue that it costs the taxpayer a lot of money when families break up - it is an argument for better public funding for any organisation that can help to keep families together. But it would be wrong to be cynical, for the figures it produced were robust, even conservative.

These were split into four main groups: legal, social security (the largest single item being supplementary benefit), local authorities (the cost of children in care), and health. The costs in the 1987/88 tax year were pounds 1.3bn.

Note that these were attributable numbers. There was no allowance for the economic consequences of social disruption: juvenile crime, special education, child guidance, family therapy and so on. Nor did these numbers reflect the impact on employers, although an additional estimate was that separation and divorce cost some pounds 3,000 per employee, such as in time off work and additional sickness. The total cost was more than pounds 320m. Remember, too, that although we talk of costs to employers, the actual cost is carried by employees (in lower wages), shareholders (in lower dividends), consumers (in higher prices), and so on. We all pay.

All these figures are now out of date - Relate hopes to conduct a further study soon and certainly deserves support for this. But if one were simply to increase the cost in line with inflation, the total cost per family breakdown cannot be less than pounds 20,000.

We do not need to make moral judgements about whether it is right to take money from one group of people to give to another, or political judgements about the future of the Child Support Agency, to be clear that family breakdown has direct financial costs that have to be carried by families which do not break up. It follows that if, by whatever means, it were possible to encourage people to live in conventional families with two parents, we would all be richer.

The Rowntree research suggests two lines of advance. One is to try to diminish the social and economic disadvantages associated with single parenthood, as Mr Blair suggested, moving to a situation where single parents were able to bring up their children and earn a living. But that is to patch a less-than-ideal situation. The other is to try to support two-parent families and minimise the creation of one- parent ones.

Is it not curious that young people are not taught the crafts of parenthood or family life? It is not easy to do this - we do not usually think of these as learnt skills - but the costs of failure are so great we should surely try harder. If it needs seed capital up-front from the taxpayer, forget the social and moral arguments and focus on the economic ones. That is the way to impress the Treasury.